Pa Towns That Rely On State Police Protection May Have To Fork Over More Money

04.30.12 | Bob Price

Gov. Tom Corbett, as part of his proposed 2012-’13 budget, wants municipalities covered by state police to give up thousands of dollars each year that these townships and boroughs receive as their share of traffic fine revenue.
    
South Middleton Township, under Corbett’s proposal, would lose $13,000 to $17,000 a year in traffic fine money.
    
That’s a small price for South Middleton continuing to rely on state police, instead of taxes going up to cover the estimated $2 million a year the township would need for its own police, said board of supervisors’ Chairman Tom Faley.
    
“We can survive without those monies,” Faley said of the traffic fine revenue, a drop in the bucket compared to an annual township budget of $3.9 million.
    
Londonderry Township would lose $8,000 a year under Corbett’s proposal. But that’s a lot easier to swallow than the township paying well over $1 million a year for police protection that wouldn’t even be around the clock.
    
Resident Bonnie Shellenhamer said Londonderry doesn’t have much crime and the state police coverage is more than adequate. She’s working two jobs and doesn’t want her taxes going up to pay for a local police force that, in her view, isn’t needed.
    
“In this township, there is not a lot that goes on. I just think it’s a waste of tax dollars,” she said.
    
Nearly one in four midstate residents live in municipalities covered by state police.
    
But as state police are stretched thinner by having to cover more municipalities, one lawmaker says the time should soon come when taxpayers in places such as Londonderry or South Middleton start picking up more of the tab.
    
It won’t happen this year. For now, all Corbett is asking is that the municipalities covered by state police give up their share of traffic fine revenue collected within their borders.
    
Under current law, 50 percent of money collected for traffic fines goes to the municipalities covered by state police. The rest is sent to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.
    
Under Corbett’s proposal, the 50 percent now going to the municipalities would go to state police.
    
The midstate has nearly 700,000 residents, according to the 2010 census. Of that, nearly 175,000 live in municipalities covered full-time by state police, mostly rural townships. The number of people in these municipalities runs from the largest by population — South Middleton with nearly 15,000 residents — to just 52 people in Cold Spring Township of Lebanon County.
    
Conewago Township in Dauphin County gets about $5,300 a year in traffic fine money, mostly from catching speeders on the stretch of Pennsylvania Turnpike running through the township.
    
The money makes up less than 1 percent of the township’s annual budget of about $750,000, said supervisors’ Chairman Joel Buckley.
    
With about 5,200 residents, Londonderry is typical of the rural townships in the midstate that rely on state police.
    
But the township is poised for growth. The proposed Lytle Farm development by itself could double the township’s population, with up to 1,700 homes and two town centers along Route 230 east of Middletown. School Heights Village could add another 966 homes behind Saturday’s Market along State Route 230.
    
Township Manager Steve Letavic said it would cost at least $1 million a year for Londonderry to pay for its own police. That’s based on daylight-to-midnight coverage that would be provided through a contract with another municipality, such as Middletown, that has its own police.

Letavic said the costs go up “exponentially” if Londonderry were to create its own police from scratch.
    
“There is absolutely no way we could fund a police department without a tax increase,” he said.
    
By contrast, the roughly $8,000 a year Londonderry would give up in traffic fine money has virtually no impact on residents or on a general fund budget of $2.86 million.
    
The so-called Hanovers in Dauphin — the fast-growing area made up of East, South and West Hanover townships — rely full-time on state police. The townships had a combined population of more than 21,000 based on the 2010 census.
    
East Hanover Township Manager Ron Reeder doesn’t mince words in saying what a tax hike for East Hanover to fund its own police would do to residents.
    
“The budget would probably go up by 50 percent. That’s a tremendous tax increase on folks, especially when the school district is facing these monumental increases with retirements and health. I think we would virtually annihilate a lot of families, because they would not be able to pay it.”
    
By contrast, Corbett’s proposal to divert the traffic fine money would only cost $8,068 and have virtually no impact on East Hanover residents.
    
Reeder said he can’t understand why East Hanover has ever received any part of the traffic fine money in the first place.
    
“We really don’t do anything for it,” Reeder said.
    
Elam Herr, with the Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors for 36 years, said he doesn’t know the rationale. It’s just always been that way, said Herr, the association assistant executive director.
    
State police now don’t directly receive any traffic fine revenue from the townships and boroughs they patrol.
    
The change would give state police $8 million a year to buy equipment for troopers, including radio gear and protective devices, said Maria Finn, a state police spokeswoman.
    
Legislation to implement the change and make it permanent as Corbett seeks must be passed by the General Assembly before the municipalities would have to give up the money.
    
Municipalities that rely solely on state police are typically rural and lower in population than towns and boroughs that have their own police or are served by a regional force. By number, most midstate municipalities are covered all or in part by state police.
    
Corbett’s proposed change could also result in a revenue loss for municipalities that just rely on state police part-time. Municipalities that have their own police protection less than 40 hours a week would also give up their share of the traffic fine revenue, under legislation that has been introduced to carry out the governor’s proposal.
    
Despite the potential loss of revenue, officials in the midstate townships that would have to give up the traffic fine money aren’t complaining much. They’re actually relieved.
    
More important, what Corbett wants pales in comparison to the alternative of these municipalities paying for their own police, or having to pay a special tax to the state, an idea that surfaced under Gov. Tom Ridge and was also pushed by Gov. Ed Rendell.
    
But Rep. Michael Sturla, D-Lancaster, said residents who live in municipalities covered by state police should be paying more for that protection, as a matter of fairness.
    
Sturla has introduced legislation to impose a $156 per person fee on most municipalities that are covered by state police full-time.
    
He said about 80 percent of the state’s land mass is covered by state police, but less than 25 percent of the population.
    
He said the rest of us pay local taxes for our own police, and then on top of that pay to subsidize the free ride being enjoyed by those living in the municipalities covered by state police.
    
“When three-quarters of the state realizes that, that is when [people are going to ask] why are we paying for your free police protection?” Sturla said.
    
For those municipalities that have their own police, $3 of every $10 in the budget pays for law enforcement, according to a 2010 report by the Governor’s Center for Local Government Services.
    
“That’s on the low end,” said Mechanicsburg Borough Manager Patrick Dennis. He said that, including all benefits, borough police account for about 35 percent of the town’s budget.
    
The department’s annual budget of about $1.6 million by itself consumes nearly all the $1.7 million Mechanicsburg collects each year in property tax, Dennis said.
    
In a town more like a small city, no one questions the need for a local police force, Dennis said. He doesn’t think residents would save money by Mechanicsburg forming a regional force with other municipalities, and he suspects the coverage wouldn’t be as good as now.
    
However, rising costs of local police coverage have combined with the bad economy of the past several years to add to the burden of state police throughout Pennsylvania.
    
“Declining revenues have forced many municipalities to reduce or even discontinue local police services requiring the state police to step in and fill the void,” State Police Commissioner Col. Frank Noonan said Feb. 16 in testimony before the Senate Appropriations Committee.
    
Finn said state police since Jan. 1, 2009, have had to pick up another 48 municipalities statewide that either reduced or ended their own coverage.
    
Eric Epstein, a consultant to East Hanover Township, doesn’t expect Sturla’s proposal to become law anytime soon.
    
“This is a governor who made a pledge not to increase taxes. I think it’s pretty clear that a per capita tax on rural residents would not be helpful in securing a second term,” Epstein said.
    
He sees the issue of townships having to pay a higher price for state police protection “dormant but not dead.”
    
“There are large municipalities that can afford a police force and choose not to finance one,” Epstein said, adding he doesn’t include East Hanover in that category. “I think the answer is finding a long-term funding solution for the state police, so we don’t have to revisit this issue during every economic downturn.”